When it comes to adapting novels into movies, there are a number of problems the initial screenwriter and subsequent filmmakers must face and/or overcome. There's the obvious fact that novels are often internally based while movies rarely get inside their characters' heads. Since everyone brings something different to any given novel while reading it, it's difficult for movies to capture that. Thus, they often disappoint fans of the literary work.
Another major dilemma is that most movies are limited in a temporal sense, where 90, 120 or even 180 minutes isn't enough time to cover everything that can and often does occur in novels. Accordingly, some cinematic adaptations feel episodic, truncated or shortchanged when it comes to their storytelling.
Having not read Stephen King's "Hearts in Atlantis," I can't say whether that's the cause of its big screen adaptation feeling that way, but it does. Thankfully, it's not a debilitating setback as the film is easy to watch and features some terrific moments and performances. Yet, the feeling that something is missing or has been left out, along with one other problem, prevent the film from being as great as it could have been, and often seems like it will be, as it unfolds.
Taking the title from King's work but the plot from the first novella, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," and the concluding story, "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," from the main novel, screenwriter William Goldman ("Heat," "All the President's Men") and director Scott Hicks ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "Shine") benefit from King's storytelling prowess, particularly in short story form.
In fact, the novelist's non-horror short stories - "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" ("The Shawshank Redemption") and "The Body" ("Stand By Me") - have usually fared better than adaptations of his long-form, horror-based works such as "Cujo" or "Pet Sematary." That's certainly the case here in this period story about a young boy's loss of innocence.
Whether it's King's original words or Goldman's take on them, the film has some wonderful and poignant moments of dialogue, and perfectly captures the spirit and essence of both late childhood and the 1960s. Of course, some/much of that also must be attributed to director Hicks, as he takes the writers' words and turns them into something magical and nostalgic, while the terrific score by composer Mychael Danna ("The Ice Storm," "The Sweet Hereafter") nicely adds to the film's tone.
The film also benefits from some terrific performances. To no one's surprise, Anthony Hopkins ("Hannibal," "Meet Joe Black") is superb once again, this time playing the mysterious but wise stranger with intriguing powers both from a supernatural and human observational standpoint.
Anton Yelchin ("15 Minutes," "Along Came a Spider") is quite good as the young protagonist, with David Morse ("Proof of Life," "The Green Mile") being appropriately somber and reflective as that character at an adult age in the film's contemporary, bookend moments. Hope Davis ("Arlington Road," "Next Stop Wonderland") does a good job portraying the self-centered mother, but it's little Mika Boorem ("The Patriot," "Along Came a Spider") who steals every scene in which she appears while playing the young protagonist's best friend.
Now for the problems that don't derail the production, but do prevent it from being the perfect bit of storytelling it initially appears it will be. For starters, and despite beginning with news of the death of one of the protagonist's childhood friends, the film focuses little on the character of Sully - played by Will Rothhaar ("Jack Frost," "Mighty Joe Young"). While I understand that the death is the catalyst for the real story that's to follow, it seems odd that the character gets little attention or screen time.
That, of course, adds to the film's truncated feel, as if that character and other material were perhaps explained and/or explored to a greater degree in the literary work, but not here. Related problems include certain developments that felt too rushed for the film's overall tone and pacing, and thus come off like certain parts leading up to them were omitted or abridged.
The film's biggest problem, however, and what could have been its strong point, is its supernatural element. Not only is that never fully explored, but its eventual disclosure also casts somewhat of a dim shadow over the proceedings. While that element is what initially makes the film intriguing and has made King's stories perpetual bestsellers, it's somewhat like "The Green Mile" where the supernatural material feels incongruous and/or somewhat cheapens what was built up to that point once it rears its head.
Like the film's other minor problems, though, it's not a debilitating fault and certainly is far from a fatal blow. Yet, it does prevent the film from being great, as the picture doesn't fully recover from the revelation, as did "Green Mile." Nevertheless, much of what's present is still quite good, intriguing and near always engaging to watch. "Hearts of Atlantis" thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.